Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Fear and Loathing in the Land of Oz

(Yeah, yeah, this is twice I've titled something inspired by the Hunter S. Thompson work.  I held out on a LOT of obvious James Franco stoner jokes on this one, so humor me.)
Well, the Holy Week/Easter chunk of time is over, and it's back to work here at the Third Row.

It also gave me a chance to get out to the theaters for another current review...and like last time, I find myself really trying to work out how to sum up my thoughts here.  Albeit in this case, it's got less of a nice sound to it.

Several weeks after the rest of the viewing public, I finally got around to seeing Sam Raimi's first big post-Spider-man bid for the blockbuster crowd with Oz: The Great and Powerful (much as I enjoyed it, I never really got the sense Drag Me to Hell was meant to be a blockbuster film so much as a fun horror title.)

This was a film that, admittedly, I was uncertain of from the off-set.  On the one hand, I have to admit, the idea of seeing a fresh take on the land of Oz in film had a lot of potential, and doubly so from a director like Raimi.  However seeing the teasers, I found myself feeling somewhat underwhelmed.  "Still," I thought "Now that it's out, why not give it a watch?"

Unfortunately, the uncertainty is still there.  To start with, I just want to say I didn't hate this movie.  It actually does have some nice visual flares, the callbacks to both versions of Oz (the 1939 movie and Baum's novels) are nice without feeling overly "SEE WHAT WE JUST DID?."

The story is, as the promotions show, pretty obvious - James Franco plays the titular character, Oscar Diggs (Oz for short,) a traveling Carnival magician in turn of the century US, which, in keeping with the homages, is filmed in black and white.  He's also, as is often the case in these stories, an absolute jerk.  He's a womanizer, he belittles his assistant (Zach Braff), and constantly focuses on the idea of becoming more than he really is.  It's the kind of personality we all know is due to get changed as the story goes on, and one that, to his credit, Franco plays well.  Anyway, after bombing on stage, and then crossing the carnival's strong man the wrong way, Oz is high-tailing it out of Dodge.  He's confident that he's gotten away with his antics once again with no consequences...until he realizes the hot air balloon he took to get out of the carnival is heading right into a tornado.

"THIS is what it's like in a tornado?  I should have gone into one of these years ago!"

One guess where said tornado leads him.  To his credit, they do avoid just making the tornado sequence a retread of the famous semi-hallucination scene in the 1939 movie.  Rather, this results in a crisis of conscience as Oz pleads with the powers that be for one more chance to prove himself.  This scene also has one drawback I'll be coming back to later, as it's a drawback that haunts a lot of the movie.

Anyway, Oz touches down in the brightly colored land I even need to say it?  It's a pretty far cry from the world people only familiar with the movie will remember - rather than being put down in a village of munchkins through an act of residential manslaughter, Oz is plopped down in the middle of the wilderness of the land that bears his namesake.  Here, he's found by one of the local witches, Theodora (Mila Kunis, in a fairly well acted, if somewhat directionless turn.)  She informs him of the situation - Oz's old king (a creation unique to this movie, as Baum didn't have a patriarchy in his books) died, and a prophecy declared a wizard bearing the land's name would arrive.
Oh, and of course there's the whole little pesky element of the fact he has to find and kill a wicked witch to get the throne. You know, easy stuff.

"Remember the pie scene in 'Spider-man 3'? 'So good?' THAT'S our new king.  Still think this is a good idea?"

All in all, this film is something of a mixed bag.  While the story is basic, it certainly doesn't damn the film on its own nature, as basic stories can make up for their simple set-up in their execution.  Unfortunately, this is probably one of Oz's biggest stumbling blocks.  Many otherwise simple elements feel ultimately muddled - Oz's 'jerk who develops a conscience' arc feels somewhat understated, as he really doesn't seem to properly reap any consequences of his carelessness.  He feels bad for not being up to snuff, but when the film reveals the biggest mistake from his actions (which I won't go too much into as a courtesy), he doesn't seem to feel all that bad about it.  There's no regret and, at the end, only a fleeting attempt to make amends for what he's done.  It's not even like anyone else beyond the wronged party takes him to task either.  Even the movie doesn't seem that interested in taking him to task, since it then eclipses his misdeed by having it amplified by the movie's wicked witch.  Simultaneously rendering him slightly less to blame and also considerably less effective within his own story.  Everyone just keeps expecting him to step up and become the great and powerful wizard of prophecy.  Never mind the fact the situation has now become more dangerous because of him.

"Told ya.  No consequences.  It's pretty sweet being Franco."

Which leads into the next strength and weakness of the film overall - to be honest, while Franco makes the most of the role, Oz just isn't a very interesting or likable character.  Which is strange, since it's not like you can't make a jerk likable (just ask Robert Downey Jr, the man who made Tony Stark so beloved was at one point in talks for the title role here.)  He simply doesn't have a whole lot of personality beyond his desire to be a great person.  Even after he changes, there's not much to him.  By comparison, the witches of Oz are all a bit more fleshed out and interesting characters.  Alongside Kunis giving a sort of doomed optimism as she falls for the film's chosen one, Rachel Weisz plays her sister with a understated, but still malevolent edge that, unfortunately, feels somewhat underused here.  Rounding out the trifecta, Michelle Williams makes the most of what she has to work with for Glinda, and still manages to make her character stand out as someone willing to use what tools she has on-hand to make the most of the situation.  Unfortunately, said tools in this case often means putting her trust in a man she doesn't even think is the prophecied one.  On the one hand, it's a case where I can see the criticisms that she comes across as lesser to Oz, but in this case, I'll still give some points for the fact that the only reason Oz actually gets anywhere is because she gives him a swift kick in the rear to do it. 

While I'm discussing the criticisms of the gender dynamic, I have to say, it does further hurt the relative lack of personality to Oz that these three women all seem to orbit around him when they all have more character by comparison and two become romantic interests to this ultimately pretty forgettable cad.

The rest of the cast produces mixed results as well.  In keeping with an element of the 1939 version, several of the cast (including the above-mentioned Williams) are mirrors of characters encountered by Oz in our world.  Braff's assistant is regenerated as a talking flying monkey in a bellhop suit named Finley (to differentiate between him and other monkeys, Finley is a smaller, cuter monkey while the villainous "monkeys" are more like winged baboons that fight like they're on bath salts.)  This mirroring is also supposed to help give us a bit more to show Oz becoming a better person when a young crippled girl (Joey King) is mirrored in China Girl, a porcelain doll whom Oz helps after her village is destroyed (I just have to say here, while I realize they wanted to create a sense of shock with the destroyed China Town, it's hard to look at a civilization made of china and not think "...well, it was bound to happen sooner or later.")  Like the cast above, these two are played fairly well, but the problem is...there's just not much to them.  I mean, they definitely exist to try and play to Oz's dormant conscience, especially Finley who sees himself as Oz's friend, but mostly, like everyone else, they just seem stuck waiting for him to do something.  Even China Girl's one big moment is largely just about helping set up someone else's victory.  The other main players here (including Tony Cox and Bill Cobb, both making some commendable effort to make their characters a bit more than the writing leaves them) are unfortunately in much the same camp.  There's only so many ways I can say 'well acted, but the script does them no favors' before it gets old.

"What do you mean 'natural selection?'"

But since I'm already going over the script pretty roughly here, I do want to go back to the witches one more time for one point that irks me.  The sisters Theodora (Kunis) and Evanora (Weisz) feel like a half formed idea that they meant to go back to but never really did.  They have a fairly full story arc as this movie goes, don't get me wrong, but so much of it feels only roughly set out.  What is supposed to feel like a major turning moment and the film's designated tragic twist instead comes up rather short, lacking the emotional impact the actresses seem like they want the scene to have.  It simply happens and we move on.

Unfortunately, that feeling pervades a lot of this movie.  This is especially surprising coming from Raimi.  For a director with as unique a style has he has had over the years, there were times this movie felt rather lacking in his personal touches.  Even his bigger budget work on Spider-man (well, the first two, anyway) had his style survive the blockbuster system.  Here, it only crops up on occasional scenes, as well as in the now traditional cameos by Bruce Campbell and Ted Raimi.

The I get the feeling I may have made a mistake in how I watched the movie.  It's no secret this film was made with 3D in mind, and it doesn't mind pointing that out to us many times (such as in the above mentioned tornado scene, where Oz has debris and luggage floating and whipping around him.)  Unfortunately, many of these scenes seem to lose some of their edge in 2D, the motion appearing overly blurry and out of place with the live action sequences.  This particularly bugged me with regards to scenes where China Girl was involved.  On her own, she actually looked like some very well done CG, actually believably appearing to be made of china.  Unfortunately, her interactions with the flesh and blood actors don't look anywhere near as impressive, as they don't appear to be actually holding her, or at least, having no actual acknowledgment of her having any weight.  I'm debating seeing if some of these effects look any better in 3D and I just made the mistake of going with the alternate viewing, but as it was, the film does lose something without the spectacle element for it.

I hate to feel like I'm just ripping on this film, because it did have some good things going for it.  Unfortunately, those good things were often countered by some drawbacks.  The end result is a rather mixed affair.  It should feel magical, but ultimately achieves more of a sense of 'just OK.'  The cast do the best they can with what they have to work with under the circumstances, which does help improve the film some, but the fact is, they're still bound by a script that feels like it could have stood some more revision.  If you have any interest, I'd still say it's worth giving a watch at least once, but if you're not really sold on the movie already, I don't imagine this will convert you any time soon.

Apparently the movie has still managed to perform well enough that they've greenlit a sequel.  Based on where the movie ends, I do wonder how they propose to continue from here.  I'd like to believe they could hopefully use that as a chance to build on some of the elements that needed work this time around, but for now, one can only speculate.

Wow.  I got this far without making a single James Franco stoner joke.  I feel strangely proud and ashamed of myself.

So let me just close by saying this:
Between his casually antagonizing everyone in the film, and making his way through a world loaded with bright colors and things coming alive and trying to hurt him (apparently the land of Oz is a death trap off the yellow brick road), this movie strikes me as a pretty good representation of what was going through Franco's mind when he was co-hosting the Oscars two years ago (Editor's note: Or any day of his life. In fact, I think Franco is playing himself in this.

In rebuttal:

(...I have to hand it to him.  Most other actors, I'd Photoshop the troll grin on.  He's one of the few who can just do it naturally.) we're done.

Till next time, folks!

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